[original submission posted below before edits]
Education reform in South Carolina suffers from a tragic lack of imagination: New standards and new tests, but the outcomes remain disappointing.
Now, recently released ACT scores serve as the newest reason to panic. As reported in The State: “The latest scores from the ACT college entrance exam suggest that many of this year’s high school graduates aren’t ready for college-level course work.”
SC’s data are troubling: 14% of test-takers not ready for college and the race gap even more alarming (2% of black students met standard on the four sections of the ACT).
SC also appears to compare poorly to the other 20 states requiring all students to take the ACT—notably Tennessee has a similar poverty rate as SC but a higher average ACT score.
However, I urge caution about interpreting ACT scores from one year of data since SC has recently adopted Common Core standards and tests, dropped Common Core, adopted yet new standards, and then chosen the ACT for annual testing.
Thus, my concerns about shouting that the sky is falling based on the new ACT scores include the following:
- Scores are depressed due to standards shuffling across the state over the past 3-4 years.
- ACT tests, like all standardized tests, remain more strongly correlated with race, social class, and gender than the quality of the schools or teachers.
- One year of data when a new test is adopted is inadequate for drawing hard conclusions.
ACT results are nothing new since SC has a long history of having low, if not the lowest, test scores in the U.S. (notably our residency in the basement of the discredited practice of journalists ranking states by SAT scores), but the most important lesson from this data is that SC has yet to address the equity gap in the lives and education of vulnerable children.
To persist with labels such as the “achievement gap” is to keep our eyes on the outcomes while ignoring the root causes of those outcomes.
SC has spent three decades changing standards, tests, and accountability, but refuses to address directly the race and class inequities facing our state and those same inequities reflected in our schools (both traditional and charter).
Ultimately, I am not trivializing SC’s ACT scores—especially as that relates to black, brown, and poor students—but I must stress we did not need more data from a different test to tell us what we have known and ignored for decades: social and educational inequity cheats those black, brown, and poor students, and our obsession with changing standards and tests fails to address the root equity problems reflected in low test scores.
The real failure in education reform lies in the inability of education reformers to do something different beyond accountability, school choice, and charter schools—none of which addresses problems directly and all of which increases those problems.
Hand wringing over results of the recent ACT is not a new revelation. Therefore, admitting that weighing a pig doesn’t make a pig fatter is crucial in our debates about low test scores. Instead we need to feed the pig, a metaphor for addressing root causes.
While problematic, recent research suggests that even when schools can raise test scores, those higher scores do not translate into benefits once students enter the real world. In other words, if education is to have real life-long positive consequences, we must confront a wide range of complex root causes and school practices in order to insure equity of opportunity—which unlike raising test scores is more likely to produce life-long benefits.
Instead of changing tests and increasing test-prep, which disproportionately impact negatively our vulnerable student populations, we need to erase food, health, and work insecurity, and we need to addresses equity of opportunity (access to experienced and certified teachers as well as access to challenging courses and then affordable college)—and not more accountability driven by ever-new standards and tests.
No one needed the recent ACT scores to confront that our schools, like our society, is negligent with black, brown, and poor students. Now, the real question is, who is willing to do something different and directly about the inequity those test scores represent?
First, let’s do the irony: Think outside box inside S.C. classrooms by SC’s executive director of StudentsFirstSC (a political journeyman, and never an educator) is the least outside the box commentary you can read.
Propaganda and baseless claims from a deceptive organization—this is what we face in SC:
- “The key is developing real-world solutions to help students learn, regardless of the hurdles they face outside of the classroom.” No. This is a harmful and failed approach. We need to address inequity in children’s lives and in their schools. Asking children to pretend their real lives don’t exit while they happen to be in school is cruel.
- “Quality teachers should have the freedom to fully use their passion to fuel innovation within their classrooms.” Hint at this sham Op-Ed: “innovation.” A hollow “business” term that means nothing.
- “A great example of innovation is happening right here in Charleston. As recently highlighted in The Post and Courier last week, Meeting Street Elementary at Brentwood is a local, public-private partnership. In a short time, this school has achieved remarkable results—setting challenging goals for students and working to help them achieve more.” There remains no proof of these claims except by MSE advocates and those who benefit from such claims.
- “South Carolina’s embrace of educators from Teach for America is a step in the right direction for our state.” TFA is de-professionalizing teaching, has failed as a sham organization, and has seen its popularity significantly decline because of the harm the program does to its recruits and the students they teach.
- “Bradford Swann is executive director of StudentsFirstSC, a non-profit, membership- based organization working to ensure all students have access to great teachers and a quality education, regardless of the ZIP code in which they live.” This is a pollitical propaganda organization that has no credibility—begun by the thoroughly discredited Michelle Rhee and run by political want-to-be’s.
StudentsFirst churns out the same Op-Eds all over the U.S.—piling on lie after lie in the seemingly never-ending parade of dishonesty in education reform.
Quite disturbing, however, is that this sort of dishonesty has been refuted for decades. For example, I published a piece in 1999, predicting and addressing this exact phenomenon.
A New Honesty in Education—Positivist Measures in a Post-Modern World addressed virtually every element of the recurring Op-Eds by StudentsFirst minions and other edureform robots.
Let me catalog a few here, and, again, this is from 1999 (all directly quoted from the article, with some emphasis added):
- The debates swirling around education never stray too far from the fore-front of key concerns for Americans. In South Carolina, for example, education grew to be a central issue of the 1998 governor’s race—the arguments centering on the lottery and video poker versus vouchers and high standards for teachers and students. Concurrent with the political season, The Atlantic ran a feature article on education—Nicholas Lemann’s “‘Ready Read!'” applauding Robert E. Slavin’s Success for All reading program. Both the South Carolina governor’s race and the Lemann article epitomize a central aspect of the current educational debate—dishonesty. That dishonesty runs through almost all the educational discourse within political arenas; such dishonesty grows from the clash inherent in the power of positivist measurements—primarily through standardized testing—within a culture that is concurrently influenced by post-modern perspectives.
- Since the rise of Taylorism at the turn of the century, education has been driven by a belief in empirical data, the belief that we can objectively generate data from standardized tests to assess both individual students and entire educational systems (Kliebard, 1995, pp. 81-82).
- We must be honest about textbooks and curriculum programs, we must be honest about standardized testing, we must be honest about the nature of educating, and we must be honest with our students in the classroom.
- Gerald W. Bracey (1997) and Herbert M. Kliebard (1995), among others, have noted that throughout the 20th century, the American educational debate has been rife with dishonesty when it benefited both politicians and educators.
- They touted higher standards for teachers (including a new testing format that would reward existing teachers with a bonus if they would take the test and would raise the score needed to gain initial certification); higher standards and a stricter, more scope-and-sequenced curriculum; and choice in education driven by vouchers.
- Lemann clearly embraces a belief in empirical data, a belief that schools should produce workers, and a belief that teachers should get out of the way of a content-rich prescribed curriculum.
- Soon politicians will realize (some already have) that if a test is designed first, and if that test dictates a prescribed curriculum that can be scripted, and if teachers can be forced to train students along that and only that curricular course, tests scores will increase, the public will be pleased (though horribly fooled), and the politicians’ careers will have been boosted.
- Educators must acknowledge that we are increasingly overwhelming students, primarily because too many factions contribute to the educational mix—parents through school boards, politicians through legislation, publishers through textbooks, and educators as practitioners. Prescribed curriculum guides, statewide standards, and textbooks often create a monster too large for either teachers or students to handle.
- A second area for educators to attack vigorously and honestly is the standardized test.
- We must assert honestly that education is still not good enough; it never will be.
- Students leaving third or fourth grade as independent and willing readers will benefit more from their educational experience than our current focus on third graders taking a wide range of standardized tests that do not force the students to produce anything, except merely to bubble.
- Clinging to that which is easily transferred to the student, that which is most manageable to assess, is the most morally and educationally bankrupt behavior existing in education.
Sound familiar? These warning from almost two decades ago?
The StudentsFirst playbook is predictable, but it is also tired and thoroughly disproven.
I begged for a new honesty in education as I taught in public schools throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
When will political leaders, the media, and the public choose to listen to educators and not con artists out for their own political gain? 
 Yes, I know, a very hollow questions in the 2016 presidential election.
In Randlandia—people of the Pearl Clan and the Onyx Clan—each morning all the children gathered at the Great Pool for Lessons.
Once, the Tribe of Rosewater—a nomadic people without clans—wandered into Randlandia, and since Lessons at the Great Pool were an honored Tradition of Randlandia, the Tribe of Rosewater was invited to gather and watch.
Children of the Pearl Clan arrived in bathing suits and Life Jackets, slipping into the water and swimming about gracefully and quickly as if this is what they were meant to do.
Children of the Onyx Clan came to the Great Pool with bathing suits only, no Life Jackets—and they gathered in a tight bobbing mass, treading water as the children of the Pearl Clan darted and glided here and there around the Great Pool.
A member of the Tribe of Rosewater asked a member of Randlandia, smiling with pride as they watched the Lessons, “What do you do for the children of the Onyx Clan?”
“What do you mean?” came the blank reply.
“That these children must tread water while the children of the Pearl Clan have Life Jackets,” explained the member of the Tribe of Rosewater in a voice filled with compassion.
“Let me show you,” followed with a finger upraised. “Children of the Onyx Clan, what have you learned?”
In unison and loudly while treading water dutifully, the children of the Onyx Clan chanted, “Treading water is not an excuse!”
The Randlandian beamed with pride and added: “We are instilling grit in the children of the Onyx Clan so that they too someday can glide through the water as effortlessly as these children of the Pearl Clan!”
“But—” stammered the member of the Tribe of Rosewater, “but that is cruel and unfair.”
And this was the day new words were brought to the people of Randlandia by the Tribe of Rosewater—”cruel” and “unfair.”
Education reform in South Carolina—just like the rest of the U.S.—suffers from a tragic lack of imagination: SC has changed the standards and high-stakes tests during thirty years of accountability about seven times, but the outcomes continue to be disappointing.
This proves that even in the South we are immune to our own cleverness: You can weigh a pig, but it won’t make the pig fatter.
The education reform version of that is that you can keep changing the tests, but the scores are going to tell you the same thing.
Deanna Pan, as a consequence, offers this “sky is falling” of the moment about public schools in SC, Only 14 percent of S.C. graduates are ready for college, according to ACT :
Results on the ACT college entrance exam show recent South Carolina high school graduates are woefully unprepared for college, despite their ambitions for postsecondary education.
Only 14 percent of 51,000 students tested statewide who graduated this year met the ACT’s “college readiness” benchmarks in all four of the exam’s subject areas — English, math, science and reading — yet 83 percent of test takers indicated they wanted to go on to college.
Even more staggering, just 2 percent of black students met the ACT’s benchmarks in all four sub-tests, compared with 9 percent of Latinos, 21 percent of whites and 33 percent of Asians.
After I talked with Pan by phone for 15-20 minutes, here is what made it to her article:
Paul Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University, said these results should be “taken with a grain of salt.” Without multiple years of testing data to compare with this year’s batch of scores, he said it’s difficult to draw any definitive conclusions, particularly about the performance of the state’s black students who disproportionately attend high-poverty schools with less access to advanced curriculum and veteran teachers.
“All standardized testing is still extremely biased by race, social class and gender,” Thomas said. “(These results) are more of a reflection of systemic problems, not with students.”
Just for clarities sake—since several charter school advocates took to Twitter to attack me by misrepresenting the above in order to promote charter schools, which annually prove to be no better than traditional public schools in SC—my caution focuses on interpreting ACT scores from one year of data after SC has over the past few years adopted Common Core and the related tests, dropped Common Core, renamed what are essentially Common Core standards to look as if we have our own state standards, and then adopted ACT as our annual testing.
In other words, my concern about shouting that the sky is falling based on the new ACT scores includes the following:
- The data are certainly depressed due to the curricular/standards shuffling across the state over the past 3-4 years.
- ACT tests, like all standardized tests, remain more strongly correlated with race, social class, and gender than the quality of the schools or teachers.
- Virtually all shifts to new high-states standardized tests necessarily begin with a drop in scores; and thus, my point about the need to wait for several years of data.
However, my key point of emphasis, regretfully, during my interview with Pan was omitted: The ACT results are nothing new since SC has a long history of having low, if not the lowest, tests scores in the U.S. (notably our demoralizing residency in the basement of the discredited practice of journalists ranking states by SAT scores), but the single most important lesson from this data is that SC has yet to address the equity gap in the lives and education of vulnerable children.
To persist with misnomers such as the “achievement gap” is to keep our eyes on the outcomes while ignoring the root causes of those outcomes.
SC has spent three decades changing standards, tests, and accountability mandates, but refuses to address directly the race and class inequities facing our state and those same inequities reflected in our schools (both traditional and charter).
Ultimately, then, I am not trivializing that these current ACT scores paint a grim picture about SC education—especially as that relates to black, brown, and poor students—but I am emphasizing that we did not need yet more data from a different test to tell us what we have known and ignored for decades: social and educational inequity is cheating those black, brown, and poor students, and our obsession with changing standards and tests fails to address the root equity problems reflected in low test scores.
The real failure in education reform lies in the ideology of the education reformers, including those committed to accountability, school choice, and charter schools—none of which addresses the root causes directly and all of which increase the actual problems.
It also is why as a teacher educator I attend to ideology. No set of curricular or pedagogical strategies can turn a classroom led by a teacher with a deficit view of families experiencing poverty into an equitable learning space for those families (Gorski 2013; Robinson 2007)….
Just as importantly, what realities does deficit ideology obscure and to what are we not responding when we respond through deficit ideology? Can we expect to eradicate outcome disparities most closely related to the barriers and challenges experienced by people experiencing poverty by ignoring those barriers and challenges – the symptoms of economic injustice?
The lamented results of the recent ACT is not a new revelation, but the callous responses by some who say poverty is an excuse are predictable and remain inexcusable.
The implication of weighing a pig doesn’t make a pig fatter is crucial in our debates about low test scores. That implication is about the need to feed the pig, a metaphor for addressing root causes.
While problematic, recent research suggests that even when some schools can raise test scores, those higher scores do not translate into benefits once students enter the real world. In other words, if education is to have real life-long positive consequences, we must address a wide range of complex root causes and school practices in order to insure equity of opportunity—which unlike test scores is more likely to produce life-long benefits.
In short, instead of changing tests and increasing test-prep, which disproportionately impacts negatively our vulnerable student populations, we need social reform that erases food, health, and work insecurity, and we need education reform that addresses equity of opportunity (for vulnerable students that includes access to experienced and certified teachers as well as access to challenging courses and then affordable college)—and not more accountability driven by ever-new standards and ever-new tests.
If anyone needed the recent ACT scores to confront that our schools, like our society, is negligent with black, brown, and poor students, that is news and cringe worthy.
Now, the real question is, who is willing to do something different and directly about the inequity?
 Let’s take a glance at what may be meant by taking this data with a grain of salt.
First, while poverty correlates strongly with standardized test scores, no one claims it is a perfect correlation. If you want to suggest that Tennessee calls into question SC’s low scores, you have to acknowledge that Nevada makes SC scores look quite differently. So only highlighting the TN/SC comparison is the discredited practice of cherry-picking (don’t trust people who cherry pick).
Next, among these 20 states we have no clarification on (1) how many years has the state been using this ACT test (the more years, the higher the scores, typically [reliability]), and (2) how well does this test correlate with what teachers have taught the students over 10-11 years of schooling [validity] (most of which could not have been correlated with this test).
Therefore, ACT test scores tell us about socioeconomic status, race, gender, and test validity/reliability—all of which are not about student learning, teacher quality, or school quality.
Ultimately, however, low ACT scores in SC this year are well within the historical data from every single different standardized test we have ever implemented. That is the lesson—one that I detail above we have no urge to address.
Minnesota 21.1 || 7/ 11.4%
Illinois 20.8 || 24/14.3%
[National Composite Score 20.8]
Colorado 20.6 || 13/12.1%
Wisconsin 20.5 || 18/13.2%
Michigan 20.3 || 33/16.2%
Montana 20.3 || 27/15.2%
North Dakota 20.3 || 5/11.1%
Missouri 20.2 || 30/15.5%
Utah 20.2 12/11.8%
Arkansas 20.2 || 46/18.7%
Kentucky 20.0 || 47/19%
Wyoming 20.0 || 3/10.6%
Tennessee 19.9 || 41/18.2%
Louisiana 19.5 || 49/19.9%
Alabama 19.1 || 48/19.2%
North Carolina 19.1 || 39/17.2%
Hawaii 18.7 || 9/11.5%
South Carolina 18.5 || 40/17.9%
Mississippi 18.4 || 51/21.9%
Nevada 17.7 || 29/15.4%
If such a thing existed, education as a profession and discipline would easily take Gold, Silver, and Bronze in the Low Self-Esteem Olympics.
Historically viewed as a woman’s profession—and thus a “second” salary—and as merely a professional discipline, education has labored under a secondary status in both the professional and academic worlds.
As a result, education chose early to be a scientific profession and discipline to counter the perception of softness—and thus, as Kliebard details, the heart and soul of education (child-centered commitments and social activism) were marginalized for the more conservative and “hard” elements (efficiency and core curriculum).
In the early decades of the twentieth century, then, a paradox developed: while many who demonized and championed education associated U.S. public schools with John Dewey, the reality was that very little progressivism was practiced but that standardized testing was established as the engine driving the education machine.
Throughout the twentieth century, IQ testing and then the SAT and similar gate-keeping standardized tests (such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills) significantly influenced how students were labeled and then what courses students were assigned—and even if they had real access to higher education. By the early 1980s, a new era of hyper-accountability was established within which the locus of power shifted entirely to standards and high-stakes tests.
In short, teachers have been reduced to implementing the standards prescribed for them and to conducting test-prep—while the discipline of education has been almost entirely bureaucratized since education courses serve as vehicles for fulfilling certification and accreditation mandates.
In the Preface to Regenerating the Philosophy of Education (edited by Kincheloe and Hewitt, Peter Lang USA, 2011), Hewitt confesses:
Seriously. I never thought I would ever have to justify the moral importance of social foundations courses—particularly philosophy of education courses—in Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs to a committee of colleagues, all holding Ph.Ds. (p. ix)
What Hewitt and the volume are addressing, however, is the new reality about teacher education: education philosophy and foundations courses are disappearing (are gone) because more and more course work in education degrees has to fulfill demands of certification and accreditation.
Teacher educators, teacher candidates, and practitioners—all are now not in the business of investigating and building/re-building the profession and discipline of education, but are soldiers taking marching orders from bureaucrats and technocrats.
No more “What is the purpose of universal public education in a free society?” but instead “How do we raise test scores among poor and black/brown students?”
And as I have pointed out before, among those of us in teacher education—who work in higher education where many of us have tenure and are full professors—“we have met the enemy and he is us.”
Teacher education has continued the most self-defeating aspects of being a low self-esteem profession and discipline by trying way too hard to prove we are like “hard” disciplines—scrambling to be like psychology while sacrificing our sociological roots, battering our majors and candidates with statistics and measurement while reducing educational philosophy to surveys at best and eliminating it entirely at worst.
And to drift a bit into irony, philosophy is extremely illustrative of the problem facing education. Gilles Deleuze explains:
We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family. The family is an “interior,” in crisis like all other interiors—scholarly, professional, etc. The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms [emphasis added]: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….
In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again [emphasis added] (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. (pp. 3-4, 5)
Education, then, as bureaucratic and technocratic has characteristics of both societies of control and disciplinary societies—”always starting again” and “never finished with anything” as characteristics of the accountability paradigm driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests.
But for all the bluster about being “scientific” and the relentless mantra of “crisis,” bureaucratic and technocratic education has failed to examine the data and re-evaluate the process: after nearly a century of standardized testing and over three decades of accountability, most “problems” all of that has been fashioned to address remain the same: poverty and inequity, racism, sexism, and homophobia still plague society and the schools designed to serve and even change that society.
The short version is that bureaucratic and technocratic education has not worked—except to destroy the heart and soul of education as a profession and discipline.
At both the K-12 and higher education levels, the school year is beginning all across the U.S. We in teacher education are spending much if not most of our time as soldiers in the certification and accreditation wars—recalibrating syllabi to standards and rewriting our rubrics to meet those new standards as well.
We in teacher education are so busy complying to bureaucratic and technocratic mandates, and so-long beaten down by the demand that we avoid being political (and thus remain compliant and silent), that we are embodying the very caricature of what educators and education professors are, paradoxically, as we rush to prove our profession and discipline are “hard,” scientific: rarely scholarly, superficial, and simplistic.
K-12 teachers are increasingly even less powerful than the profession has been forever; therefore, teacher education—where we are tenured and full professors—is the last best hope for reclaiming the heart and soul of universal public education from the bureaucrats and technocrats.
We must reclaim the coursework and the discipline—ripping off our low self-esteem and standing proudly with our philosophy, theory, history, and methodology.
As a profession, education is a human endeavor, guided by our hearts and anchored by our souls. Teaching daily is messy, unpredictable, and chaotic.
None of that is “soft,” or hedging accountability.
As a discipline, education is rich and still in a constant state of becoming.
I cannot stress enough that over a thirty-plus-year career as first a public school English teacher and now a teacher educator, I don’t need standards, I don’t need tests, and I damn well don’t need rubrics to teach.
I do need students, and I do need courses to teach.
But these are trivial matters, irrelevant, as long as teacher educators remain dedicated soldiers in the bureaucratic and technocratic education war.
Now, we do need defectors, conscientious objectors—teacher educators willing to resist, to speak up, and act out.
Especially those of us with tenure and who are full professors, we need not be the enemy—we can and should do better.
[See original submission with hyperlinks included below]
Reforming School Discipline Policies Must Recognize Racial Inequity
A recent Post and Courier editorial argues: “[school] is…not a place where children should be labeled criminals on a regular basis. And that’s what seems to have been happening in Charleston County schools.”
Just as Richland 2 (Columbia) addressed in 2014, Charleston is now committed to reforming discipline policies in schools that have resulted in significant imbalances in how students are treated, worst of which is that often those practices criminalize students of color disproportionately.
Education reform has been prominent in South Carolina and across the U.S. since the late 1970s and early 1980s, notably with the accountability movement based on academic standards and high-stakes testing. Along with a “get-tough” attitude about academics—such as instituting exit exams—public schools have also increasingly embraced “get-tough” approaches to student behavior—“no excuses” philosophies and zero tolerance policies, for example.
Over the past thirty or so years, however, doubling down again and again on accountability as well as discipline has not created the outcomes promised, but has resulted in many unintended negative consequences.
Exit exams as gatekeepers in school and student accountability as well as popular policies such as grade retention based on test scores have proven to be extremely harmful, especially for vulnerable populations of students (poor, black/brown, and special needs students and English language learners).
While Charleston continues to struggle with education reform targeting academics, the city has also been the epicenter of the larger national challenge to recognize concerns about policing and racial tensions—with the shooting of Walter Scott and the heinous massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
To reform school discipline, we must admit, is to confront a subset of the wider race problem with mass incarceration and police shootings. If our public schools are to be change agents for our society, they must be unlike the culture and communities they serve.
Charleston, then, is making a wise and important decision to reform discipline policies in the district, but additionally, this move requires that political leaders and the public are well educated about the realities of racial inequities in school discipline.
Those lessons must include the following:
- In 2012 the Office of Civil Rights released disturbing data about racial imbalances in school suspensions and expulsions: “African-American students represent 18% of students in the CRDC [Civil Rights Data Collection] sample, but 35% of students suspended once, 46% of those suspended more than once, and 39% of students expelled.”
- Racial inequities in school discipline begin in prekindergarten, and have lingering negative consequences for students, including contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline and higher drop-out rates.
- Researchalso shows that black children are targeted more often and treated differently than white children for the same behaviors. In fact, Kenrya Rankin Naasel reports: “When black students exhibit behavioral problems at school, administrators are more likely to call the police than to secure medical interventions. In fact, the study found that the more black students who attend a school, the more likely the people in charge are to call the police, rather than a doctor.”
- Black children are viewed asbeing much older than their biological ages, and thus, Stacey Patton, a senior enterprise reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education, argues, “Black America has again been reminded that its children are not seen as worthy of being alive—in part because they are not seen as children at all, but as menacing threats to white lives.”
- Police in the hallways of schools has proven to be more likely to criminalize students than to create safer learning environments.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement has forced the U.S. to confront some hard truths about lingering racial inequity, and addressing discipline policies in Charleston along with continuing to reform academic opportunities for students is yet another set of hard racial truths for us to examine and overcome.
Charleston educational leaders should be commended for this needed move, but the way forward has to be informed by the available research and then grounded in a firm commitment to create the sorts of equitable and rich school experiences that South Carolina has for too long neglected to provide for poor and black/brown students.
In his For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Christopher Emdin offers a powerful guiding principle for all education reform: “It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student.”
Our “get-tough” approaches to academics and discipline are damaging our students, and we must find better ways to serve all our students.
UPDATE: And then I receive a racist (incoherent) email as a response:
We must imagine that if we were able to peak inside the imagination of politicians in the U.S., we would see only one scene on a loop:
Especially when our political leaders are addressing education, they cannot resist the urge to wallow in crisis discourse and to promise Utopian outcomes.
As I have documented before, the rush to declare public schools an abject failure and then offer prescriptions for bureaucratic reforms began at least in the 1890s with the Committee of Ten. Periodically, the exact same scenario repeats itself—not unlike the inevitable rebooting of superheroes that plagues the comic book industry, which can retell only the same origin stories over and over again.
In recent history, education reform experienced a Hulk-like transformation with A Nation at Risk (“We are in CRISIS!!!”) under Ronald Reagan—although it was a lie—spurring the accountability era.
Education reform over the past thirty years has been an endless parade of NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests as well as a silly string of inane names for political policies that appear to have been generated by an Orwellian computer program: Goals 2000: Educate America Act, No Child Left Behind, Every Student Succeeds Act.
At their core, however, has been the same-old-same-old: Education is in CRISIS!!! but here is the reform solution (just like the last reform solution).
If politics is anything in the U.S., it is finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig.
This first report explains why there’s no time to lose in rebuilding state education systems. However NCSL’s study group still has questions—and surely the reader does too—about how to design and implement these systemic changes in the states. Where should legislators begin—teacher recruitment or preparation, standards, assessments, early learning? How should states realign their resources? Do some of these policies fit together better into an actionable package? There is still much to learn and discover.
This report combines the CRISIS!!! we have come to expect with the breezy tone of an NPR story on education.
The opening of the Executive Summary reads like a brilliant parody from The Onion— filled with false but enduring claims:
The bad news is most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world in a number of international comparisons and on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy.
Fact Check: Decades of evidence have proven that there is NO CORRELATION between measurable educational quality of a state or country and that state/country’ economic status. As well, NAEP data and all standardized testing (notably PISA, which is central to this report’s claims) has been repeatedly proven to reflect mostly socioeconomic status of those students taking the tests—not school, teacher, or standards quality.
Therefore, the grounding CRISIS!!! of this report once again suggests there is little to gain from this report.
This report is fatally flawed by crisis discourse, simplistic international comparisons based on high-stakes test scores, linking measurable education quality to economic health and workforce quality, and remaining trapped in the ignored bitter lessons from chasing better tests.
Like the 87th retelling of the Batman origin, this report is doomed by a total lack of imagination—trapped in a narrative that politicians think will change each time they tell it. But also like those superhero reboots, there are kernels of potential buried under the scrambling feet of movie goers fleeing the (manufactured) Blob as it squeezes into the theater.
So, what about the reform solutions offered here?
Let’s consider the report’s primary focus on Elements of a World-Class Education System:
- “Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.” As linked above, and since this report highlights Ontario, Canada, this element is extremely important because the socioeconomic status of any child’s home, especially in the first years of that child’s life, powerfully predicts educational outcomes. The appropriate response to this element is calling for social reform addressing equity and then exploring education reform driven by equity and not accountability.
- “A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed.” The real problem in the U.S. regarding teacher quality is equitable access by all children to experienced and certified teachers. Poor and black/brown students are disproportionately likely to be assigned to un-/under-certified and inexperienced/new teachers (see here). But we must acknowledge, even if we address (and we must) equitable student access to experienced and certified teachers, the likelihood we will see dramatic changes in test scores is very low since teacher quality accounts for only about 10-15% of measurable student learning.
- “A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education.” While a credible concern, the tension between academic and technical (career-oriented) education has a long and complex history (see Kliebard). Regretfully, playing the academic/technical card by political leaders and embedding that in education policy has never worked—and likely never will. This remains a tired and recycled (and renamed) part of the lack of imagination when politicians address education reform.
- “Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system.” By this fourth element, we see the gradually erosion toward superficial political/business thought: empty change-speak. But more troubling is that the political/bureaucratic/business response to education is always driven by prescriptions and structures that ignore the essentially unpredictable and complex act of one teacher teaching a classroom of unique students.
Before returning yet again to a new round of international comparisons (o, precious Finland, Ontario, and Singapore!!! ), the report ends with more crisis and hyperbole:
As state legislators, it is our responsibility to provide our citizens with a world-class education. We cannot let another generation settle for anything less. Our future workforce, national defense, economic vitality and democratic foundation depend on our ability and willingness to get this done.
If we assemble the best minds in policy and practice, implement what we know works, and commit ourselves to the time, effort and resources needed to make monumental changes, we can once again be among the best education systems in the world. If they can do it, so can we. But there’s no time to lose.
No Time to Lose is yet another round of the political crisis machine—perpetually trapped in Utopian promises that have never and will never result from our blind faith in NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests.
Two of the four Elements highlighted in the report offer a small promise—but I fear they cannot survive the trampling of perpetual crisis.
 In the early 1960s, it was the powerhouse threat of Swiss schools!!!